- The Washington Times
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

These were not the same Washington Capitals that dominated the Tampa Bay Lightning in Games 1 and 2 in Florida, not the same team that outscored its opponent 10-4 in those games.

An uncharacteristically poor night for the Capitals‘ special teams led to their 4-2 loss in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals Tuesday night. Washington’s penalty kill allowed two power-play goals in four opportunities, and its own power play failed to convert on three chances.

“They know and we know both teams have pretty good special teams and if we’re going to play like that, they’re going to use it,” Alex Ovechkin said.

The Capitals‘ power play and penalty kill both have thrived during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They sustained a streak of more than 20 kills in a row that spanned parts of the first two rounds, and their power-play success rate of 32.6 percent entering Tuesday was second-best among all postseason teams. But Tuesday was a different story.

This was the first game the Capitals have lost since Nicklas Backstrom left Game 5 against Pittsburgh with an upper-body injury. Coincidentally, Lars Eller, who had been thriving in Backstrom’s usual spot as second-line center, had a rough evening and went to the penalty box three times.

Eller’s first penalty led to Tampa Bay’s second goal, via Nikita Kucherov. Before that, Steven Stamkos opened scoring for the Lightning late in the first period after Braden Holtby was called for tripping.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper was happy to see his team score first after the Capitals opened the scoring in Games 1 and 2 to take early control.

“A big thing for us, and I think it’s worked I guess in the three games, is the team that really gets the lead is the team that’s in the driver’s seat,” Cooper said. “We talked about this, you’ve got to make them chase the game. Maybe they play a little different.”

In the first two games of the series, the Capitals‘ dominance appeared in the score sheet not in special teams, but in even-strength goals. Washington outscored Tampa Bay a combined 7-1 during 5-on-5 in Games 1 and 2. But after getting rolling Tuesday with the pair of power-play goals, the Lightning scored twice more at 5-on-5.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said the Lightning’s power-play goals did not necessarily loosen them up to improve on their even-strength chances, but the constant penalties interfered with what Washington wanted to do.

“It took a lot of flow out of our game,” Trotz said. “We weren’t able to get some of our guys that don’t really have a role in the power play or penalty kill to get a chance to use them again.”

It was especially true in the third period, when the Capitals took three penalties while trying to claw back into a game they trailed 3-1. Eller took his third of the night when he cross-checked Steven Stamkos, but Stamkos was sent off at the same time for roughing Eller in a tussle after the play.

But the Capitals did not get away with that cleanly, because Michal Kempny committed a cross-check 16 seconds later and forced them into defending a 4-on-3 rather than mounting a comeback.

Meanwhile, the Capitals‘ vaunted power play, which features Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller (in Backstrom’s place) and John Carlson on the top half, failed to convert on one opportunity in every period.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who made primary assists on both power-play goals and then scored his first goal of the playoffs, said he was “more satisfied” with his team’s performance on the penalty kill than the power play.

“We know (the Capitals) have a great power play, and they obviously played around in the first two games and got some big goals,” Hedman said. “For us to get two goals today and shut them down on the PK was big. We’re going to need that to keep going.”

The Capitals still own a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 coming Thursday at home. They will set out to show the home crowd that Tuesday’s special teams shortcomings were an aberration.

“Power play make everything. They scored, we didn’t and that’s on us,” Kuznetsov said. “Not good enough for power play, but we will be better for sure.”

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